In 2015 the Victorian Government released a document titled ‘Safer Together: A new approach to reducing the risk of bushfire in Victoria’ (State of Victoria 2015). Drawn from the hard-won lessons of the last few fire seasons this report emphasises that government and the community will take a new and collaborative approach to identifying and managing fire risk. The concept of knowledge is a critical element of the document. It emphasises that using scientific research and modelling, as well as local community understanding of landscape, will drive this change.
It is timely then to analyse more closely what constitutes fire knowledge. This paper focuses on one element that, like community-based knowledge, has tended to be overlooked. This is the tacit knowledge held by staff of land and fire agencies in Victoria. It explores the extent to which staff member’s tacit fire knowledge is valued, critiqued and used.
Fire knowledge is attained by staff in a range of ways. Training and related activities focusing on the transfer of formal or explicit knowledge are important components of knowledge development. However, much if not most, knowledge development is the result of practical involvement in fire management and can be classed as tacit knowledge.
Tacit knowledge is knowledge that is not easily written down and derives from observing and doing. It is drawn from subjective insights and intuitions, is context specific, is not easily visible or expressible, is difficult to formalise or transfer, and is a key driver of personal decision-making (Kakabadse, Kouzin & Kakabadse 2001, Linde 2001, Stenmark 2001). It is argued here that tacit knowledge, and its use, is one of the primary determinants of how staff members apply fire management on the ground. People use their tacit knowledge to respond to situations in the field, and to interpret and apply formal training and agency procedures and policies.
The tacit knowledge referred to here exists at a variety of scales. It can include personal understanding of fire behaviour in specific landscapes, or awareness of how lighting patterns can be used to achieve planned burn objectives. Such knowledge, despite its elusiveness, is critical to the development of fire practice as it reflects the development of insight gained from years of observation, trial and error.
There are at least five primary reasons why fire agencies need to recognise and draw out the tacit fire knowledge of staff.
Most importantly, recognition of staff tacit knowledge is an essential pre-cursor to the development of innovative organisations. Roux and colleagues (2006) demonstrated that recognition is essential to the ‘co-development’ of knowledge across the science management divide. They argue that innovation in land management practice is constrained in agencies by the presence of separate ‘operational’ and ‘research’ cultures that struggle to communicate and share knowledge. Valuing and drawing out the tacit knowledge of operational staff is shown to be a critical factor in breaking this barrier down.
In Victoria, this divide is real, and perhaps best illustrated by the challenge of integrating fire ecology practice into operational fire management. The initial interviews conducted with staff revealed that they possess significant knowledge about the relationship between fire and ecological condition. Despite this, they are rarely asked to reveal, critique or discuss this knowledge and have little direct exposure to structured fire ecology research programs.
Image: Anthony English
Ecological burning in a Parks Victoria grassland reserve, south of Ballarat.
As Stenmark (2001) notes, tacit knowledge can be elusive. We are not necessarily aware of the tacit knowledge that we possess, we may have little personal reason to share it, and may perceive sharing it as a reduction of competitive advantage. Its elusiveness can hide the fact that tacit knowledge is highly valuable and a critical driver of personal behaviour, attitudes and performance.
Sitting behind tacit knowledge is the formal or explicit knowledge that is relayed to staff in training courses, manuals and procedures. Referred to by researchers such as Polanyi (1966) as ‘context-free theory’, this formal knowledge is then applied, used and reshaped in its application to suit specific circumstances in practice. It is here that tacit knowledge shows its influence as staff members rely on the observed behaviour of their peers, their personal experience, and their interpretation of procedures, to direct their actions and decisions.
Blair and colleagues (2010a, 2010b) argued that land and fire agencies in Victoria have tended to see knowledge as an object to be imparted, rather than as a process that is embedded in social systems and personal experiences. This has meant that formal rather than tacit knowledge has been a focus of knowledge development and exchange systems in these agencies. They argue that this view of knowledge has restricted agency capacity to recognise and respect community-based fire knowledge. It is argued that this view of knowledge has also impacted on the recognition and understanding of staff member tacit knowledge by land and fire agencies.
Two methods were used to conduct a preliminary assessment of the scope and influence of staff member tacit knowledge on fire practice in Victoria. The first involved the author’s personal review of how fire knowledge has developed, and is developing. This approach shows the observed value of reflection as a learning tool (Kakabadse, Kouzin & Kakabadse 2001). The second involved conducting a small number of interviews with staff who focused on their own knowledge development, and on specific elements of their tacit knowledge. This approach relied on the efficacy of learning history approaches to organisational knowledge gathering and exchange (Linde 2001, Department of Defence 2010, Parent & Beliveau 2007, Elliot et al. 2009).
Review of the author’s personal experience in fire management can be used to shed light on the way that tacit fire knowledge is developed and used by individual fire practitioners. Personal tacit knowledge builds as one plans and conducts subsequent planned burns. For example, the author’s awareness of how different vegetation and fuel types respond to varied lighting patterns continues to develop each season. This allows refinement of tactics that enhance crew safety, and the achievement of burn objectives that balance agency and community expectations. Familiarity builds over time as one plans and conducts subsequent planned burns, particularly with how different vegetation and fuel types in central Victoria responded to varied fire lighting patterns. This knowledge and perspective has been shaped by conversations with others (social), developed within a specific set of landscapes and activities (context), shaped by training, observation and doing (process), and by sight, sound and smell (modes of being). This personal experience of knowledge development accords with the definition of knowledge applied by Blair and co-authors (2010a). It reveals that formal training in planned burning is only one element in knowledge development and, in turn, only one influence on how to conduct activities on the ground. Therefore direct experience influences how to place the formal or explicit knowledge gained at training into a context.
The author’s observation of work practices by teams at planned burns reveals the critical role played by tacit knowledge in shaping fire practice. This observation suggests that individual teams derive localised techniques for applying fire to the landscape. Observation of individual teams that have derived localised techniques for applying fire to the landscape during planned burning that reflects their particular knowledge of landscape and fire behaviour. When discussing tactics and techniques it is common for staff to refer to previous experiences to illustrate the insight they gained over time. This reflection is used to help justify or explain the way they carry out their work. It is not unusual to hear staff referring to crews sent to work in their area from other locations as requiring specific direction to ensure that they work in a way that matches local conditions and, by extension, associated norms and expectations. Published research has revealed similar insights to the role played by past experience (tacit knowledge) in shaping staff decisions and actions. A good example is cited in Elliot, Omedei & Johnson (2009) who report that staff experience of near misses and accidents is a major influence on their future planning and decision-making.
The small number of interviews conducted with experienced staff revealed information about how tacit fire knowledge is developed and applied. These interviews explored specific elements of a person’s tacit knowledge. Staff members were asked to reflect on how their understanding of the influence of variables such as season, vegetation types, crew behaviour and terrain on planned burning outcomes had developed across their career. This revealed the complex inter-play that exists between explicit and tacit knowledge and reinforced the hidden but critical role played by the latter in shaping both decisions and outcomes.
Using the outcomes of these interviews and author reflection, Table 1 shows some of the key factors that may be critical in shaping staff tacit fire knowledge in a fire agency. Their relevance and influence needs to be tested through structured inquiry.
Table 1: Potential factors shaping the development and use of staff tacit fire knowledge.
New legislation, policy and operating procedures.
Generates changed procedures and practices that over time become embedded in staff behaviour and norms. As an example, comparison of workplace safety practices over the last 20 years reveals that significant change has occurred in staff behaviours and expectations associated with safe working procedures.
Community based debates and expectations, for example about the value and conduct of prescribed burning.
Staff members are embedded in social systems so they absorb debates and points of view being expressed in the community. This and their personal values shape their attitude toward fire practice over time.
New technology and equipment.
Staff members learn how to do tasks differently and more effectively. This can accelerate staff capabilityand innovation and generate flow-on changes in fire practice.
Personal experience over time such as exposure to different seasonal conditions and landscapes.
Improved staff awareness of factors that shape decision-making and the outcomes, such as the relationship between fuel types, topography, fire behaviour and operational tactics.
Staff may have access to significant levels of tacit knowledge within their teams. This knowledge helps form workplace norms or peer-generated views about tactics, standards and procedures. See for example Hayes, Omedei & Johnson 2013.
Change in a staff member’s personal fire role such as from a fire fighter to a planner or incident controller.
Staff will re-evaluate their knowledge as they move into different roles and become exposed to different expectations, perspectives, information and systems.
Significant research has been undertaken that explores how organisations can tap into and facilitate the transfer and sharing of tacit knowledge (Kakabadse Kouzin & Kakabadse 2001, Stenmark 2001, Cabrera & Cabrera 2005, Roux et al. 2006). A common thread that occurs is that agencies need to understand what tacit knowledge is, and then understand how it is used, withheld and shared by individuals within organisations.
This body of research reveals that tacit knowledge can be leveraged, exchanged and transferred within an organisation if a number of elements are present. Fundamentally organisations need to understand what Cabrera and Cabrera (2005) refer to as the ‘social-psychological determinants’ of knowledge sharing. They discuss the theories of reasoned action, social capital, social dilemma, and social exchange to highlight four propositions.
Kakabadse and co-authors (2001), like Blair and colleagues (2010a, 2010b) argue that knowledge sharing is a ‘socialization process’ and not simply the provision of information in explicit forms such as manuals and procedures. They highlight the presence of trust and an egalitarian culture is essential to support tacit knowledge exchange. This is echoed in the research of Edmondson and Lei (2014) who refer to the concept of ‘psychological safety’. When this is present, people share and express ideas without fear of negative repercussions. Establishing a workplace culture where this is possible requires leadership and an explicit recognition of the value of tacit knowledge.
This research can be used to assess how current approaches to knowledge management in fire agencies in Victoria may support or constrain the recognition and transfer of tacit knowledge.
There are positive dimensions of tacit knowledge review and exchange in Victoria:
In addition, the use of systems of competencies for fire roles is also bound up with the management and recognition of knowledge. Operationally, there are also numerous knowledge gathering or exchange processes in place that are routinely used in fire management settings. Common tools are debriefs, or After Action Reviews (AARs) that occur after events such as a prescribed burn or, on a larger scale, after a fire season. AARs can identify important improvements to practice that can be implemented by teams on the ground. The improvements identified are often derived from the expression of, or reference to, staff tacit knowledge.
These positive elements are combated by a number of factors:
Image: Tony Morris, Parks Victoria.
Aerial view of planned burning operations conducted in 2015 at the Macedon Regional Park, central Victoria.
Four changes are needed by land and fire agencies to develop new approaches to knowledge exchange and development.
If designed well, adopting these four changes could form a self-sustaining loop of knowledge development and exchange.
Recognition of staff tacit knowledge and its effect on operational practice is a critical step if agencies are to achieve strategic objectives in land and fire management. Numerous benefits would flow from this for the agencies involved and the communities they serve. It would contribute significantly to agency adaptability, openness to learning from the community, and the ability to exchange ideas and knowledge across the science-operations divide.
The author thanks Roger Strickland of the Country Fire Authority for reviewing drafts of this paper and providing access to recent research as well as the two anonymous reviewers for their comments on draft versions of this paper.
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Anthony English is a District Manager with Parks Victoria and undertakes the roles of Burn Officer in Charge and Operations Officer Level 2 at bushfires. Anthony has also worked in park and fire management in New South Wales and the Northern Territory. He has a strong interest in workforce planning and a background in cultural heritage management.
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